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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Someone has to throw the first party of the year and IMSA has built its Rolex 24 at Daytona into a bucket-list event on a calendar full of motorsports elite races. There’s a Corvette Corral just inside the fourth turn and the Ferris wheel lifts fans 150 feet above Daytona International Speedway to watch the sportiest cars from the top manufacturers in the world.

It is a festival in the infield that includes a wine-and-cheese event, a parade of historically significant cars and collectors from all over the world. Those roaring engines? One of the most prestigious sports car races in the world is the background noise for this very unique event.

The twice-round-the-clock endurance race begins Saturday and Roger Penske, a week away from his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, vowed to stay awake for the entire event. Penske, who turns 82 next month, pulled the all-nighter last year when he returned to sports cars with a stacked Acura program.

It was apparently not a stunt because the team owner said the Team Penske pit stand has been upgraded since its inaugural race with elevated heaters to use during the brisk overnight shifts and an expanded area for the team owner to stand and stretch his legs. A stack of thermal underwear had been neatly folded and Penske said there was no reason for him to wander too far away from his DPi entries, which start second and third overall.

“I came to watch the racing, to follow along,” said Penske, who snacked on an ice cream sandwich he snagged Friday from the infield food tent that serves the race teams all weekend. “What if I stepped away for a few hours and something happened? What’s the point of that?”

IMSA, the series backed largely by current NASCAR chairman Jim France, is celebrating its 50th season and the Rolex has cemented itself as the place for all top drivers to begin their seasons. This is the place for drivers to prove they can master multiple disciplines and fill useful roles for teams capable of winning the biggest races in the world. Alex Zanardi, in his first North American race since he lost both his legs in a 2001 crash , is the headliner this season.

“There’s only one driver in this race,” Bobby Rahal, a longtime BMW partner and owner of Zanardi’s race team, said of the attention directed to the Italian double-amputee. Zanardi is racing for the first time without his prosthetics by using a BMW-designed steering wheel of hand levers. His positivity and passion for life has enveloped the entire paddock, made this running of the Rolex an event packed with emotions, and created a pure excitement for the start of another long racing season.

“He’s a magician,” Penske said simply.

This is Fernando Alonso’s first race since he closed his Formula One career in November and Zanardi’s presence has made the Spaniard a secondary story line. Only this is the start of an action-packed year for the two-time F1 champion because he’s carving out a schedule to race events that bring him joy. So he’s booked solid into June, past the Indianapolis 500, and looking to kick this year off with a win.

“I am feeling like I need to go back to F1 to get some time off,” the Spaniard joked.

This is the final race of a long career for Christian Fittipaldi, one of four drivers in the Rolex field who last shared a track with Zanardi on the day he lost his legs. Fittipaldi is part of the defending race-winning Action Express Racing team and was feted this weekend with a surprise retirement party.

The Brazilian openly wept as his racing career zoomed toward the finish line. Then Action Express was thrown a curveball when British driver Mike Conway failed to get out of England for what a Cadillac representative would only say was “travel issues.” Conway’s absence meant Action Express had to whittle down from four drivers to just three, the same trio that won a year ago, but Fittipaldi will have to drive more stints than planned.

At least he’ll be going out with a full effort.

“I always knew I could not race forever, no one can do one thing forever,” Fittipaldi said. “So now I get a big send-off.”

Katherine Legge is headlining an all-female lineup full of so much talent that calling the team a gimmick would be an insult to its drivers. Townsend Bell is part of a new team fronted by IndyCar team owners Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, and he will be juggling his jobs as driver and NBC Sports analyst.

NBC Sports is in the first year as IMSA’s television partner and pulled out all the stops for its inaugural sports car event. The Rolex is a massive kick off to a year in which NBC Sports has most of the major motorsports properties, and the network has almost all of its IndyCar and NASCAR talent lineups in Daytona. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and booth partner Steve Letarte are on site, carrying rosters, wandering the paddock, figuring out just who everyone is and what kind of car they drive.

The network will also use Bell and AJ Allmendinger, who is making the transition from racing into broadcasting, during their breaks from driving.

“NBC is really going all at it,” said five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon. “You’ve even got Junior here, bloody hell, that’s pretty big,”

Scott Dixon is an anchor on the GT Le Mans defending winning team from Chip Ganassi Racing, and its sister car won the year before. Now there’s been a balance of performance tweak that has the Ford GTs feeling a tad handcuffed headed into the race.

“Not that we can’t win it, but we’ll need the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth and the planets to all line up,” Ganassi said.


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